Fiction Review by Sandra McIntyre

Laura Boudreau, Suitable Precautions (Emeryville: Biblioasis, 2011). Paperbound, 192 pp., $19.95.

Cathy Stonehouse, Something About the Animal (Emeryville: Biblioasis, 2011). Paperbound, 224 pp., $19.95.

The characters in Laura Boudreau’s debut short story collection take precautions Suitable Precautionsagainst a variety of outcomes—the discovery of secrets, memory loss, loss of innocence, payback, vulnerability, danger. Often, the precautions seem elaborate and twisted. In “Strange Pilgrims,” Ella does “something that disgusted her” every day, such as smoking a cigarette butt off the ground, to counter the beauty and ease of her post-windfall life. In “The Dead Dad Game,” Nate and Elaine make a game of what they don’t understand, competing for the better death through the details of dying, while mom Natalie attempts to ward off the pain of loss through remembrance rituals. These extreme measures allow Boudreau some latitude in drawing and developing her characters. As a result, the stories in Suitable Precautions are peopled with characters who act in believably quirky and compellingly odd ways. In reading Boudreau’s stories we come to see that the characters in fact choose precautions that are appropriate to who they are, how they perceive the world, and what they want. The precautions develop and reveal character in turn. In “The D and D Report,” Alexa will let nothing stand in the way of her ambitions. She cuts a friend loose as a precaution against her big lie being discovered—or perhaps against being reminded of the lie as she proceeds to build her life on it. Alexa’s precautions and the outcomes upon which they are predicated tell us much about who she is.

Boudreau skilfully handles her characters’ awareness of their preparatory actions and what those actions may cost them; many stories end with these moments of understanding. “Nothing just disappears,” Alexa says at the close of “The D and D Report”—not secrets or friendships or money. How pleasurable it is as a reader to acquire this same understanding through the story, and not have to be told by the narrator or through a more obvious revelation. In “Tick,” one of the strongest and most dramatic stories, Boudreau uses second-person narration to shift this moment of awareness onto the reader directly. By the time we realize we are in danger and have not taken suitable safeguards against the force of her narration, it is too late. Just because some precautions are suitable doesn’t mean they are effectual. In “The Meteorite Hunter,” Julia tries to protect Diana from the difficulty of attending a funeral by sending her on the road with her dad, David, only to have her brought closer to death than anyone could have foreseen. Despite Julia and David’s precautions, Diana is literally brought face to face with death. Some outcomes are unavoidable.

Boudreau seems to enjoy writing about attempts and effort, as opposed to outcome. It’s the game not the winner, the race not the finish that interests her. And while the characters are busy bringing balance, countering effects, warding, protecting and otherwise preparing, their lives continue to happen. From growing up to falling in love, good luck to tragedy, Boudreau’s precautionary tales show us that in the randomness of life, prevention is not always possible. How can you take suitable precautions when outcomes are unknowable? Not surprisingly, the only sure outcome—death—is a common thread in these stories, though accidents, mishaps, misunderstandings, and mistakes also abound. Often, as in “The Dead Dad Game” and “The Vosmak Genealogy,” an object of love (the dad and Mickey, and the daughter, respectively) is cared for deeply and unabashedly as protection against the inevitability of loss. For Boudreau, it seems love is the most powerful precaution, and as such is the only one that comes with any sort of guarantee.

Cathy Stonehouse’s Something About the Animal is another debut short story Something About the Animalcollection from Biblioasis, though strikingly different from Boudreau’s. Stonehouse writes in or on the edge of crisis, often about characters that have only a tenuous sense of control or a slippery grip on reality. These unstable characters—would-be suicides, agoraphobics, runaways, rape victims, post-partum-depression and PTSD sufferers— live difficult, double lives of profound uncertainty alongside day-to-day routine. Some of them, like Jackie in “Going to India,” who muses about “what she’ll say from her straitjacket, when they come,” and the first-person narrator of “Where I Live Now,” who waits patiently for someone to “cart me away and lock me up,” are perfectly aware of how close they are to the edge. Others, like Beryl in “Beryl Takes a Knife,” are not so lucid: she thinks the paramedic who has come to take her away is her lost son, and she welcomes him with open arms.

Stonehouse’s skill lies in her ability to render a topsy-turvy world without alienating her reader. Her writing is disarming and fearless, never cute or sweet. Even stories that are light in tone, such as “A Special Sound” and “Child Abuse,” reveal an underbelly that is grave, bordering on bleak. (After all, how light can a story called “Child Abuse” be?) Especially interested in the vulnerability of the poor and the poorly loved, Stonehouse gives girls in trouble recurring roles in her wide cast. In stories like “The Stockholm Syndrome,” “Salt and Clay,” and “A Little Winter” female characters collide with or try to escape the fathers, boyfriends, husbands, and random men who can hurt them. And hurt them they do—beating, berating, forcibly confining, raping, even murdering. These girls need protectors, mentors, and friends, but of these there are few. For the most part, they make their way alone and ill-equipped.

In the midst of so much violence the odd story surprises with its optimism. In “Underneath the World,” Cynthia and Jude are two single mothers doing the best they can, failing in minor ways. Together, the women can perhaps lead happier, less jangled lives. The absence of men in this story is noticeable and may have something to do with the shades of hope we find there. In “Where I Live Now,” the presence of men again signals trouble, as the damage done in an abusive fatherson relationship is measured against the healthiness and hopefulness of a homosexual one.

The violence, pain, and vulnerability Stonehouse seems drawn to creatively make for intense reading, yet an ease with shifts in time, a mastery of suspense, and perfect, revealing last lines soften the blows. Like the sounds of the girl’s prostitute mother with her lover in the title story, the stories in Something About the Animal are “both beautiful and dreadful,” but only in the title story does Stonehouse find the perfect balance between the two.

—Sandra McIntyre

As in The Malahat Review, 178, Spring 2012, 95-98